There used to be a time when the Ballon d’Or could be decided on memorable displays in World Cups or Champions League ties. So even was the landscape of individual recognition that defining moments tilted the votes into unexpected directions, such as when the winners were Michael Owen (2001), Paved Nedved (2003) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006). The margins were narrow, the outcome awaited with genuine excitement. And then Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo entered the fray.
The duo’s arrival has become a watershed in the accolade’s history. Before France Football’s Ballon d’Or merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year, in 2010, no player had retained it since Marco van Basten in 1989. Three years later, Messi had won four on the spin. Soon in Zürich, the Argentine will appear on the podium for a ninth consecutive year and may well make the top two with Ronaldo for a seventh time in eight.
Such domination may be no wonder, for never have two such formidable players coexisted. Yet it also denotes a spell in which a concentration of wealth and talent has aided individual consistency. In 2009, Florentino Pérez named Ronaldo the star of his galáctico sequel, while Pep Guardiola had started making Messi the fulcrum of what would become one of the finest club sides of all time. Since that summer, Barca and Madrid have won five out of six championships, three Champions League titles and failed to make the semi-finals on just one occasion each.
This has boosted the potential for personal achievement. Twenty years ago, nobody had a possession average of 65 percent. Nobody accrued 100 points a season. Now they do, which partly explains why a record such as Telmo Zarra’s 38 league goals in a La Liga season, which until 2011 had stood unsurpassed for 60 years, has since been smashed to pieces on four occasions.
As such, the stratospheric goalscoring ratios of Messi and Ronaldo are not only tributes to their individual qualities, but statistical manifestations of La Liga’s duopolistic nature. In another era, without such a skilled group of team-mates, their numbers would be lower, their grip on the award looser. While most of their wins have been indisputable, the voting in the two World Cup years have underlined how strong their positions have become.
Historically, the Ballon d’Or has been heavily influenced by the World Cup. Prior to 2010, five of the last seven winners had been crowned world champions the same year: Cannavaro (2006), Ronaldo (2002), Zinedine Zidane (1998), Lothar Matthaus (1990) and Paolo Rossi (1982). In 1994, Hristo Stoichkov won it by guiding Bulgaria to a sensational semi-final. In 1986, the prize went to Igor Belanov, of the Soviet Union, though Diego Maradona would have walked it for his heroics in Mexico had non-Europeans been eligible; something that did not happen until 1995.
In 2010, the dynamic changed. Spain’s World Cup win got Xavi and Andres Iniesta nominated, but Messi still won. The outcome was defendable: Messi had won La Liga and shone in an unremarkable Argentina side led by Maradona. Yet many felt – and still feel – that a Spaniard should have won it, particularly since Argentina crashed to a 4-0 defeat in the quarter-finals. Messi’s margin of victory was small and, had he played for Barca in another era, his form at club level might not have been good enough to outweigh the World Cup. The tendency continued in 2014. Germany triumphed in Brazil, while the award winner, Ronaldo, did not survive the group stage.
Neither has team success at club level, outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid, guaranteed anything in recent years. In 2013, Franck Ribéry inspired Bayern Munich to the treble, only to finish third.
Little suggests Barca and Madrid will decline, and so future winners may continue to come from these clubs. But the names will inevitably change. While Messi will surely win this year, many feel Neymar should beat Ronaldo, whose greatness has waned for months as Madrid have gone from bad to worse.
Linked to this is the fact that Ronaldo’s brilliance has grown so reliant on the team to function; a byproduct of his evolution from tricky winger to gladiatorial finisher. His goals this season have come almost exclusively against weaker teams and, if Zidane proves a flop, the Portuguese, who turns 31 in February, looks likely to fall outside the top three next year.
That would initially appear to pave the way for Messi, but Neymar has been closing in. Assuming more responsibility after Messi’s injury in September, the Brazilian hit another level and guided Barca through a fruitful period that culminated in a 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. A few years ago, people talked about an overdependence on Messi. When Neymar and Luis Suarez took charge, the 28-year-old no longer seemed indispensable.
Neither should we forget how Neymar ended the treble-winning 2014/15 season. Messi’s return to the right wing has shared the limelight more evenly across the front three, and their figures for 2015 are similar: Messi and Suárez have 48 goals apiece, Neymar has 41. Recall that Neymar hit 12 goals across 10 games in quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, and you are looking at a decent year.
For all that, however, Messi remains the star, and the balance between his inventive passing, quicksilver dribbling and ruthless finishing has never been so delicate. While an extrapolation from recent displays may suggest a close call next year, it would probably take an injury nightmare for Messi or a Brazil win in the Copa América to nudge Neymar ahead. Even so, it feels less correct than ever to regard Messi as some kind of untouchable extraterrestrial. The takeover is surely a question of time.
Until then, this year could well be the last of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. That may disappoint debaters engrossed in their age-old battle. For others, however, a return to a more unpredictable era will be welcomed.